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Rights Groups Raise Alarm Over US Government Role in Facebook's Selective Censorship

"Does anyone trust the Trump administration—or any other government—to compel social media platforms to delete and block anyone it wants to be silenced?"

Civil liberties groups have raised concerns over the government's involvement in Facebook's decisions regarding their selective banning of certain world leaders. (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Civil liberties and digital rights groups are raising concerns over the possible behind-the-scenes influence by the U.S. government in Facebook's decision to selectively block some sanctioned world leaders from using the social media platform, while allowing others to maintain accounts.

Facebook deleted the account of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov last week, explaining that the head of the Russian republic had been added to the government's sanctions list, which bars U.S. companies from providing services to him. Kadyrov has been accused of committing numerous human rights abuses against the LGBT community and his opponents.

Other sanctioned leaders, however, have not been banned from the website. While both Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have been slapped by the U.S. with economic sanctions, neither have yet had their accounts suspended.

"It really does seem as though Facebook is picking and choosing compliance, which suggests there is government involvement," Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the Guardian.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has raised concerns that the government could be indirectly censoring political speech via its economic sanctions.

"It really does seem as though Facebook is picking and choosing compliance, which suggests there is government involvement."—Jillian York, Electronic Frontier Foundation

"This sanctions law is being used to suppress speech with little consideration of the free expression values and the special risks of blocking speech, as opposed to blocking commerce or funds as the sanctions was designed to do. That's really problematic," ACLU attorney Jennifer Granick told the New York Times when the newspaper reported on Facebook's deletion of Kadyrov's account.

According to the Intercept, the possibility of Facebook's cooperation with the government to determine which leaders should be banned is deeply troubling—and not far-fetched. The company has met with Israeli officials to discuss the deletion of Palestinian activists' accounts on the grounds of "incitement," as Glenn Greenwald reported:

The meetings—called for and presided over by one of the most extremist and authoritarian Israeli officials, pro-settlement Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked—came after Israel threatened Facebook that its failure to voluntarily comply with Israeli deletion orders would result in the enactment of laws requiring Facebook to do so, upon pain of being severely fined or even blocked in the country.

The predictable results of those meetings are now clear and well-documented. Ever since, Facebook has been on a censorship rampage against Palestinian activists who protest the decades-long, illegal Israeli occupation, all directed and determined by Israeli officials. Indeed, Israeli officials have been publicly boasting about how obedient Facebook is when it comes to Israeli censorship orders.

Greenwald noted that "Israelis have virtually free rein to post whatever they want about Palestinians. Calls by Israelis for the killing of Palestinians are commonplace on Facebook, and largely remain undisturbed."

He also stressed that the Trump administration's ability to "pick and choose" who is barred from social media networks—which two-thirds of Americans use as news sources, according to Pew Research—could have dangerous implications for anyone the president considers an opponent.

"The Trump administration has the unilateral and unchecked power to force the removal of anyone it wants from Facebook and Instagram by simply including them on a sanctions list," he wrote. "Does anyone think this is a good outcome? Does anyone trust the Trump administration—or any other government—to compel social media platforms to delete and block anyone it wants to be silenced?"

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